Welcome to Think, Texas a weekly column about Texas history

One does not think of water policy as a subject for entertainment and pleasure.


Yet environmental journalist Seamus McGraw’s 2018 book, "A Thirsty Land: The Fight for Water in Texas," recently out in paperback, combines old-fashioned storytelling with horizonwide reporting to produce a captivating and, at the same time, serious book on the subject.


Part of his story is one of human denial: Every time it rains, and especially when it floods, everyone in Texas forgets about the crushing droughts that came before and will inevitably follow. Even the clear effects of climate change do not alter that ever-hopeful attitude that the rain will eventually return. It always has, right?


Planners, ecologists and historians know better. Yet they are up against Texas custom and law dealing with underground and surface water. The inherent conflicts relate to the broader historical and ongoing water fights in the West.


McGraw: "The deeply ingrained and conflicted sensibility — that water is often at once a personal possession and one that must be viewed as a public resource — has always been part of the ethos of the American West in general."


Regarding the wet stuff trapped in pools below the surface of the Earth, Texas follows the "right of capture" heritage, which means that if you dig a hole deep enough, you can pump as much water as you want.


Civic planners have responded by establishing groundwater districts, but their oversight is limited, and time and again, as McGraw reminds us, greedy tappers often get their way, depleting aquifers and shriveling springs while they also attempt to transfer water from poorer and less powerful regions to thirsty spots such as cities and suburbs.


Texas customs on surface water, derived in part from English common law and antithetical to Spanish and Mexican concepts of rivers and streams as a public trust, are no less absurd when you examine them closely. Whoever claims and draws a certain amount of water from rivers, lakes or other surface sources can continue to make that claim into virtual perpetuity. Again, watershed authorities have made progress sorting out those rights for decades, but the state continues to grow and evolve rapidly as much of our surface water is already grossly oversubscribed.


Add the claims of other states and countries and, there you have it, one big mess.


Here’s how I’ve explained the concept of prior claim before: Because of historical use, 200 rice farmers downstream might draw as much water as 2 million residents upstream and pay 10 cents on the dollar. And they intend to use it, not to irrigate a critical crop, but rather to kill weeds.


That’s a gross oversimplification, but not far from the reality, according to water experts I’ve consulted over the years.


McGraw is meticulously fair when it comes to cases such as this one. He visits the farmers. Fleshes out their family histories. Juggles the priorities of urban and suburban needs with the livelihoods and crucial commodities tied to Texas agriculture, which remains the thirstiest economic sector in our state.


Three particular stories stand for all the others in this limited space.


One incredible tale is introduced in the first chapter, titled "Pipe Dreams: The 1968 State Water Plan." I remember this grand proposal, an update to a 1957 plan, distinctly: Pipe water from the rainy east, including the Mississippi River, in two canal networks to the cities and out to the arid west and south. McGraw includes the best map of this Texas Water Development Board plan I’ve ever seen.


Texans voted it down in August 1969, even though they were coming out of another drought.


McGraw uses the water-transfer plan to survey the complicated interaction of land, water, people, livestock, industry and farming dating from pre-Colonial times.


McGraw’s most personal story is that of Shirley Shumake, whose backwoods land on the half-forgotten Sulphur River in Northeast Texas was threatened earlier in this century by the leaders and water purveyors of Dallas and Fort Worth. She and her neighbors had every reason to believe that the big city powers would take their land through condemnation and build another large reservoir on the river.


Yet ordinary Texans, in concert with environmentalists, fought and won. Later, those who love the riparian bottomlands of the Neches River won a parallel fight. DFW simply turned to other water sources. In this case, McGraw plainly empathizes with Shumake’s troops, and this story stands alone for its emotional impact.


McGraw is respectful but not sympathetic to another set of individuals who battled everyone around them for water: the family of Jeff Williams, J.C. Williams and the late Clayton "Claytie" Willams Jr., the latter an oilman and unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1990. Because of the rule of capture, they and a few other big farmers in West Texas drained the aquifer that fed the historic and definitional Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton. It dried up.


"The Pecos County Water Control and Improvement District Number One sued, of course," McGraw writes. "And of course, in 1954, they lost. On June 21, 1954, the Texas Court of Civil Appeals ruled that indeed groundwater was too mysterious, too occult to regulate and that the law in Texas truly was whoever has the biggest pump wins."


Despite extraordinary advances in the science of hydrology since the 1950s, the rule of capture is still the basic law of the land.


McGraw spends a good deal of time on the endangered Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water for a big chunk of the Plains including the Panhandle. He digs into the ways that Dow Chemical has bullied other water users in the Brazos River basin. He turns to the water-intensive oil boom that began in the 1920s. Overpumping in the Houston area made the land sink, which of course contributed to Hurricane Harvey-like flooding.


He treats the fantastical plan to build a series of locks on the Trinity River in order to bring seafaring ships up to Dallas playfully. On a road trip, I stumbled upon one of those abandoned locks on the Trinity. That imaginative but discarded plan came rushing back to my memory.


McGraw has a good time with both the visionaries and con men who pursued rainmaking in the desert and desalination both on the coast and in West Texas.


McGraw drops into this very readable prose some astounding trivia that is not really trivial: "Texas sits astride the same latitude of the Sahara Desert." "It is more likely that a significant drought will occur somewhere than it is that the average amount of rain will fall."


He gives the last word to Andrew Sansom patron saint of Texas water policy. When it comes to the challenge of the next drought, Sansom responds with three words: "Use less water."


Texans are learning to do that, perhaps not quickly enough.


McGraw is not above hyperbole, but he is always good-natured and ecumenical. And he never ignores Texas history.


"Maybe there will be time to talk about how the cycles of killer floods and devastating fires, drought and torrential rains have plagued Texas since the days of the cave painters. ..." McGraw writes. "There might even be time to wonder in our headlong rush to become the most urbanized state in the union we have blurred the boundary between the urban and the wild, making ourselves even more vulnerable to those cycles, perhaps even exacerbating those cycles while at the same time we overtax the very resources — like water — that could help us mitigate those risks."